Jiānbing (Chinese: 煎饼), a traditional Chinese snack commonly served in the early hours for breakfast, closely resembles a cross between a crepe and a dosa. The crepe is made with a beaten egg, garnished with fresh herbs, pickles, and dried chili, and smeared with various sweet and spicy sauces. Its fillings are customizable, but the most common and popular version is made with a flat, crispy fried cracker in the center. It is typically sold for 3.5 yuan from 6am to 10am.
Over time, the popular street food has become identified with the term “jianbing ren煎饼人” which is used to describe people who are not capable of focusing on one thing at a time and truly deepen their thoughts. Their distracted mannerisms reflect the cooking style of jianbing, where the batter spreads in many directions across a large, round pan to generate a thin layer of pancake. Jianbing ren also live their lives in a “thin layer” that covers a lot of space without ever becoming “thick.” This can be explained by the change in value for social relationships, where nowadays people must create many superficial friendships in order to find job opportunities unlike their predecessors who had the stability of a work-unit (danwei单位) during Communist and early reform years. Much of the criticism comes from the older generations who lament upon younger generation’s lazy and impulsive characteristics due to the internet-craze and creatively suppressed education system. Many Chinese regard the term as a local characteristic rather than an extension of a global modernity. It is linked to the privatization of market, growing divide between generations, and changing values.
The batter is traditionally made of mung bean flour, but different variations of its recipe might include other coarse grains like millet (xiaomi小米), purple rice (zimi紫米), green bean (lüdou绿豆), corn flour, soybean, or wheat flour. Oil is sometimes used to grease the pan before the batter is spread into a thin layer on the griddle. The pancake is sprinkled with minced scallions, cilantro, pickled mustard tuber. After an egg is broken up and spread on the entire surface, the crepe is smeared with fermented bean curd sauce (hongdou furu 红豆腐乳 or nanru南乳), a hoisin sauce (tianmianjiang甜面酱), and sprinkled with either chili flakes or a chili sauce (lajiang辣酱). Inside, a pre-fried wonton, youtiao, hot dog sausage, or chicken can be wrapped in the center of the crepe.
A round, cast iron griddle is heated at a medium-low temperature, and a bit of oil is used to grease its surface. The thickness of the crepe batter varies in consistency, but is always spread evenly across the surface of the griddle in a swift circular motion. An egg is cracked on top and the yolk is evenly broken and evenly spread over the crepe. Sliced scallions, cilantro (xiang cai香菜), and pickled mustard tuber (zha cai榨菜) are sprinkled. The crepe is then folded in half, and smeared with a sweet fermented bean curd sauce (hong doufuru or nanru), a hoisin sauce (tianmianjiang), and sprinkled with either chili flakes or a chili sauce (lajiang). Baocui, a crispy fried cracker, is then added in the center and the crepe is folded and sliced in the center to be eaten as a handheld snack.
According to legends, jianbing originated during the Three Kingdoms period more than 2,000 years ago. Zhuge Liang, Liu Bei’s chancellor in Shandong Province, was encountered with the problem of feeding his army who had lost their woks. Zhuge ordered the cooks to mix water with wheat flour and spread the dough onto flat, copper griddles suspended over a fire. This innovative cooking technique lifted his soldiers’ morale and strength, allowing them to win the battle thereafter. Since then, people from the Shandong province have passed down this dish through generations.
The myth of origin comes from Zhuge Liang during the Chinese Three Kingdoms period more than 2,000 years ago. This man was a chancellor in the province of Shandong for the general Liu Bei, and he had a problem of feeding everyone in the army without the traditional Chinese cooking ware woks. Thus, Zhuge decided to use flat griddle-like pans and mix water with flour to cook this mixture evenly on the bottom of these flat pans. This was so well liked by soldiers that it made them stronger and they were able to win a battle after this. Ever after, people of Shandong province have passed this dish down generation to generation.
Colder temperatures in the northern part of China made it difficult for Chinese to grow rice, which explains use of coarse grains like wheat and millet to make various forms of pancake. Before electricity reached the countryside, every household had a water-powered stone mill (shuimo) that would be used to grind course grains into flour. Peasants would mill a day in advance and pan-fry their jianbing on a metal griddle over hot coals the next morning. The variety of nutrients in the grains allow for the comestible to be easily preserved in high-temperatures.
Jianbingguozi 煎饼果子– jianbing filled with a fried cruller (youtiao) instead of a crispy fried cracker (baocui)
jia xiangchang 加香菜– add coriander
jia shengcai 加生菜– add lettuce
cong you bing 葱油饼– scallion pancakes
shou zhua bing 手煎饼– hand-grabbed pancake
dan bing 蛋饼– egg pancake
qian ceng bing 千层饼– flaky pancake
qiang bing 炝饼– puffy pancake